Color For Days


When it came to color and exoticism, composer Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) had few equals. At the height of his powers when, in his 43rd and 44th year, he composed his last major orchestral works, he wrote of them that they "close a period of my work, at the end of which my orchestration had attained a considerable degree of virtuosity and warm sonority." That's putting it mildly, as becomes clear upon listening to Robert Spano and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's recording of Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade, Op. 35/Russian Easter Orchestra.

The composer's ability, in Scheherazade, to tell the tale of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights via sinuous melodies and huge sweeps of orchestral color produced one of the most seductive blockbusters of the romantic literature. Such an achievement was essential to tell the story of Sultana Scheherazade, one of the many wives of Sultan Shahriar, who saved herself by telling so many captivating tales over a period of 1,001 nights that the Sultan eventually abandoned his plan to execute her.

It may seem like a major leap to go from tales of an Arabian harem to the Russian Orthodox celebration of Easter, but Rimsky-Korsakov's conception for his Russian Easter Orchestra included not just liturgical chants and the gloomy mystery of Passion Saturday, but also what he called "the unbridled pagan-religious merrymaking of the morn of Easter Sunday." When performed back-to-back, they provided a great opportunity for Spano, the Atlanta forces, and Telarc's engineering team to go whole hog.